As winter approaches, the eastern Mediterranean is in a state of agitation. On 31 October Turkey launched its own hunt for oil and gas off Antalya, a race which could stir up new tensions in the region.
Ankara announced that it would oppose “unilateral, illegitimate and unjust” actions going against its interests. This at a time when Cyprus is about to resume exploratory drilling off its southern coast. The American oil-and-gas company ExxonMobil is due to begin drilling in the promising block 10 of Cyprus’s economic exclusion zone this month.
On 4 November Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan threateningly warned the oil giants against any gas exploration in Cyprus, calling them “pirates” and “bandits”. The Cypriot media is talking of a “psychological war”, a “game changer” which Turkey is trying to impose on the eastern Mediterranean.
Over the last decade, exploratory drilling has uncovered vast reserves of natural gas and oil near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. The Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum, is rapidly becoming the focus of tensions linked to maritime borders and economic exclusion zones (EEZ). Two regional disputes exacerbate the problem: the Israel-Palestine conflict and discord over Cyprus itself, the island being divided since the Turkish invasion of 1974.
On 4 November foreign diplomatic sources told the Cypriot daily Politis that Turkey’s recently acquired drilling ship named Conqueror (Deep Sea Metro II), sailing off Antalya, is only the start of a Turkish strategic plan to torpedo Cyprus’s energy program by 2019, and that the hydrocarbons question now represents a sticking point for the next stages of talks on the Cyprus question.
In the context of a long-term solution ExxonMobil’s drilling could turn out well, but if the conflict remains unresolved then the risk is of escalating tension. “Turkey is conducting a policy of wait-and-see, so as to gauge the intentions of the Greek-Cypriot side on the Cyprus question and to get a full idea of the results of ExxonMobil’s drilling in block 10”, says Giannis Ioannou, diplomatic analyst at the University of Nicosia.
Ankara, which occupies half of the island (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, TRNC), does not have diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cyprus, which is internationally recognized. Turkey, as protector of the Turkish Cypriots, uses as its pretext the claim that the Cypriot government does not represent the interests of Turkish Cypriots. It refutes Greek-Cypriot claims to exclusive sovereignty, asserts that such sovereignty is subject to negotiation in the talks, and points to its own status as guarantor of a 1980 treaty agreement to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots. Accordingly, Turkey does not recognize Cyprus’s economic exclusion zone.
Neither has Ankara ratified the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) because of its misgivings about article 87 of part V. Following Ankara’s line, TRNC claims co-ownership of the island’s natural resources and opposes attempts by Nicosia to make unilateral contracts for drilling at sea. In September 2011 the Turkish Cypriots signed an “accord of delimitation of the continental shelf” with Turkey. On this basis the separatist regime declared an “economic exclusion zone” comprising half of the Cypriot EEZ and including blocks 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12 and 13.
This map shows Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as the different drilling blocks, the companies that are exploiting them, and their country. (Andreas Vou | VoxEurop).
Several analysts had suggested that Cypriot gas would be a catalyst for a solution to the Cyprus problem, but it has turned out to be an obstacle. In 2015 talks were suspended after Turkey violated the EEZ by broadcasting a Navtex message, an international alert signal. But the gradual recovery from the economic crisis of 2012-13 and the election of a ne